Being in a dangerous situation was rarely something that scared me, in itself. It had been the case, once upon a time, when the Lambs were new and we didn’t even have a medic as part of the team, that a young Sylvester had felt his knees go wobbly and his hands shake, his thoughts falling to pieces as emotion took over.
The problem was that that kind of thinking was antithetical to efficient thinking. It clogged things up, drove one to run away, escape, do the simplest thing possible to get out of that bad situation. An artifact of our ancestors’ functioning, before higher thinking had been a thing, according to Wallace.
Faced with any number of monsters, thrust into bad situations, I’d adjusted. All of us had, really, with the exception of Helen, who had never experienced true horror and panic as we did. That said, the Wyvern formula had helped me make the adjustment more quickly. I’d helped Gordon and Jamie figure it out, more the latter than the former. Gordon, more than any of us, had always been more comfortable doing things on his own. Even if it was figuring out how to face life or death situations, or how to create those situations for others and follow through at the end of the day. I’d figured it out, counseled, and offered the help I could, a push here and there.
Learning to deal with the other Lambs being in imminent danger had been harder. But I’d more or less learned. Seeing them hone their abilities, I’d told myself and taught myself that, even when situations looked as bad as they could get, that we would see it through.
Years of experience, a full third of my life, teaching myself and my training my brain an almost careless disregard for the rules of self preservation that gripped ordinary people, and the ability to look past the threat to my loved ones to see the solutions to those threats.
Years of experience, and yet it was proving awfully hard to do in the midst of this, hearing Lillian’s screaming.
I was caught, Lillian was pinned to the ground, and the others were lying on the ground over by the entrance. We were outnumbered and we were weaker than our adversaries in general physical strength. The parasite was inches from her face, covering an inch every few seconds, periodically stopping, twisting up like a snake in pain, blood spitting out of the wound. The twisting and rolling over moved it horizontally, but not enough to move it away from Lillian.
Both of my arms were being held. If the thug had been holding one wrist only, that would have made things harder, not easier, necessitating that I elbow him and clutch at him enough to make him grab me.
As it was, I bucked, forcing him to bear my meager weight as I lifted both feet off the ground. Both shoes came down hard on the floor, as I grunted for effect.
Test done. Now for the gamble.
The best questions to ask were ones where one already knew the answer. Question: how would the Fishmonger react? I had no idea.
But I didn’t like hearing Lillian’s scream, and the thought of this being some lingering memory of her last moments, so soon after talking to Jamie?
I’d dropped the parasite at my feet. I went limp, dropping as far as I could, legs out and forward.
I clamped my feet around it.
The screaming stopped. I saw Lillian’s eyes, wide, tears in the corners, filling with wonder and a hope that probably wasn’t justified. A feeling swelled inside me, and a lot of things that hadn’t ever made sense to me suddenly clicked.
There was no time to explore that feeling that made me feel twice as big as I really was, making me want to be a hero instead of a bastard. The thing was fighting to get out from between the edges of my shoes.
‘Throwing’ it at the Fishmonger with a kick-out-and-release maneuver would have been a proper sort of justice, but the clothes he wore and the wide-brimmed hat gave me an awfully small target – the face beneath his hat, or perhaps his hand.
Abdomen curling, legs kicking up and off the ground, I let go of the thing. It sailed up and back.
If I hit the face of the person holding me, all the better. If we lost it in the mess of shelves and containers, great. But getting it away from Lillian was the critical point.
I didn’t hit the face of the person holding me. I had no idea if I’d lost the thing. But I achieved my third goal.
“Brat!” the man holding me shouted.
Third go. Legs up, off the ground-
He dropped me. He’d learned his lesson.
But I was already plotting out my next moves. If he held me, I could bring my feet down and back, aiming to strike at his kneecap, or straight down onto the arch of his foot. Being dropped on the ground meant I could get my feet under me, either run or strike back.
He was already reacting, moving to grab something from the table, expecting me to run.
I struck, muddy shoe soles sliding slightly on hardwood as I raised myself up to a standing position. I didn’t get all the way to my feet- my shoulder went up between his legs.
Use the opportunity to spot the parasite, see where it went, find something to help Lillian-
He grabbed me by the collar.
He’d had no reaction to what amounted to one of the most solid blows I was physically able to deliver to his pride, joy, and joy. Or would it be pride, pride and joy? I only had limited hands-on experience with that.
It was all academic at this point. Though he wasn’t so severely changed as the four I’d seen earlier, he had been altered. Protected, possibly with everything vital tucked up inside or some measure taken.
He heaved me over to the left. My ear, temple, and eye met the edge of the table, inches from the patient’s feet.
My vision didn’t blur, my focus didn’t waver, but it damn well hurt. I felt blood flow out, producing an audible ‘blorp’ sound as it momentarily occluded my ear canal. Somewhere in the midst of that, I collapsed onto the ground, maintaining eye contact with Lillian.
That ‘big’ feeling was gone, now.
He kicked me in the ribs, punctuating the earlier hit with something more solid. The pain was something I could get past. But an interruption in that nice normal pattern of breathing and heartbeats did take the fight out of me for a few seconds.
The net was closing. The thugs from around the room cautiously approached, keeping a moderate distance from the table with the other parasite and victim. The routes I had available to me were narrowing, options dwindling.
“Where did it go?” one of the thugs asked. His prior vantage point hadn’t afforded him a view of the full fight. The table with the victim and the adjoining tables with tools on them were an obstruction.
“Over there,” the thug that loomed over me spoke. “You can see the slime trail and blood.”
The Fishmonger lurched, pulling himself to a standing position. He twisted Lillian’s hair as he forced her to stand as well. “Grab him.”
I was grabbed. One eye stung as blood got in it. I blinked it a few times, trying to get a clearer view, but it only seemed to make it worse. I didn’t bother trying to fight against the grip they had on me as I was hauled to my feet, arms held behind me.
“Get the burrower,” the Fishmonger said. He was glaring at me, as if I’d somehow wronged him and the notion that he’d put us in this situation, hurt us, and planned to torture us hadn’t even crossed his mind.
Well, in a way, he was justified. We’d picked this fight. His irrationality had come full circle in an irrational world.
The mooks seemed reluctant to follow through.
“I said, get the burrower.”
I waited, held firmly, while the Fishmonger passed charge of Lillian to another underling. She kept struggling, fighting, staring at me, eyes periodically flickering to my hands, waiting for a signal.
I’d had great plans for how this would unfold, before we’d been pressed into saving a life. It was a confluence of bad circumstance that put us here. Any other group configuration, and we might have looked past one life or at least been willing to let it be for as long as the Fishmonger took to die. But Lillian and Jamie weren’t fighters, and Lillian had a soft heart.
“Do you know who this is?” The Fishmonger asked. He put one hand on the chest of the man who lay on the table.
He got blank stares and silence in exchange.
“This is the type of man who doesn’t take the initiative, find something with a long handle, and scrape a damn burrower out from under a shelf.”
The assorted thugs exchanged glances.
One man found the courage. He reached up to a high shelf and got a broken broom handle, climbed down to the floor, and poked underneath the shelf.
I dearly wished the thing would latch onto his face. But it wasn’t that quick.
He withdrew from the shelf, poking and prodding the thing with the blunt end of the broom handle. It rolled on its side and flipped over until it was more or less in the Fishmonger’s vicinity.
The man, Giles, reached over to the table, and pulled on gloves. They snapped tight against his wrist. He bent down and collected the thing.
I met Lillian’s eyes. I knew she was looking to me for answers. I was still panting for breath, I only had one eye open, and I could feel blood running down one side of my face and down one ear, partially obscuring the canal, leaving me half-deaf in one ear. It said a lot that she was looking to me for answers.
I could steer her, put her on a course, using my best know-how and some gestures. It wasn’t worth it. My plan wasn’t that convincing even to myself, and Lillian needed to learn to stand on her own.
Not that I wouldn’t help. I glanced in the direction of Jamie and Gordon, and felt a bit of worry. They were still motionless, one scale-skinned thug standing over their limp bodies.
I tried to convince myself that the Fishmonger wouldn’t waste life when he could put it to use for profit or amusement. It wasn’t an effective enough argument to help the disquiet I felt. I was getting more nervous, feeling more like the Sylvester I was once upon a time.
I’d only just fixed things with Jamie, at least starting us on the road to getting to a better place. Or he’d started me on the road. He’d done the work.
I couldn’t have Lillian die horribly, I couldn’t lose Jamie, and I couldn’t see this be the circumstances where Gordon’s heart finally gave out.
No, I had to treat this as a situation where it was up to Lillian and me, and that meant that I couldn’t dictate a plan to Lillian, or it might as well be up to me alone.
I didn’t give her a signal, nor did I give her any directions.
The Fishmonger held the parasite in two gloved hands. He stood in front of me, displeasure etched on a face that looked like human flesh had been grafted on over a bulldog’s. The flesh hung, the eyelids drooped, and though I’d seen something resembling a smile earlier, it was hard to look at him and imagine him grinning or ever appearing happy.
“This is the point I’m supposed to explain what this does,” he said, showing me the wounded parasite. “To drive the point home, filling you with horror before I follow through and make that horror real.”
I wanted so very much to say something to him, a biting comment, offer up a jab, but I didn’t want to give away the show. I had to take it.
“I’m not going to do that,” he said. “You’ll figure out what it does, and that will be worse, as you realize.”
He reached forward, digging fingertips and thumbtip into my cheeks, forcing them into and between my teeth, prying my mouth open by sheer strength alone. I couldn’t close my mouth without biting into the flesh of my own cheeks.
He raised the parasite, and the thing waved its head around, left, right, up, down, searching. Tiny legs at the edges of its body clawed at my lip and chin, seeking purchase, and I felt it grip my flesh, the skin pinching where its lower body made contact.
The tiny hairs, clinging to my skin with a nigh-unbreakable grip.
At least my pain tolerance was high. If it came down to it, I could handle this better than Lillian could.
Giles the Fishmonger stepped back. He was glaring, clearly unhappy.
I was supposed to be screaming, fighting the man who held my arms.
It probed my lips with its head, and tiny mandibles or thorny bits cut as it searched the aperture. It pushed into the space, and I could taste it. It tasted like something that had, minutes ago, been inside someone’s midsection. Blood, feces, and bile. I could keep from screaming, but I couldn’t keep from screwing up my face in disgust.
It was biting me, taking tiny pieces out, and the more of it that came into contact with my mouth, the more mouths there were doing the biting.
Involuntarily, my arms jerked at the pain. The thug held them firm.
It recoiled. I felt it jerk. The tail writhed, and the pinching grip on the skin of my face released. The body writhed, attempting to push itself away and drop to the ground, much as it had after it was injured.
Before it could drop, I bit. I caught its head in between my teeth. The taste of it overpowered my senses.
It continued flopping around, twisting, fighting to get away. The spines and teeth of its head, nigh-invisible or retractable, were biting and slicing into my gums.
Doesn’t like what it’s tasting. Some of the poisons that had been injected into my brain had permeated my body to an extent. It had changed the texture of my hair and stunted my growth, among other things. One of the few side-benefits was that parasites didn’t tend to like me. Not that the ‘didn’t tend to’ filled me with confidence at any point.
“The hell?” someone asked.
Second and last chance, Sy.
I turned my head to the right, then whipped it up and to the left, hard. The body of the parasite whipped out and up, toward the face of the man who had my arms. I was too short for the parasite to make contact, but the sight of a parasite flying toward him, with my last flung parasite fresh in my enemy’s memory? He flinched, and he let go of me.
They had guns and other weapons. The only way to succeed was to go for the head. I had to do it before they got a clear draw on me.
I released the parasite from my teeth. I caught it in my bare hands, and felt the pinch as it tried to grab me. It seemed to recognize me, because it recoiled, fighting to escape my grip.
It made for a bad melee weapon as I swung it up at the Fishmonger’s face.
He brought his arm up, shielding his face. He cringed, backing up as I swung again and again, batting at his head, knocking his hat off, aiming to make contact between parasite and flesh.
I knew every second counted. The only opening we had available to us was to disable the Fishmonger and interrupt his control over his underlings. Put them on the defensive. If their boss went down, screaming and flailing, then it gave us an opening. Lillian could offer to remove the parasite, we could trade the Fishmonger for our own, leverage that position for information…
But only if I didn’t get shot. Move unpredictably, find an opening, not just for the Fishmonger-
As the Fishmonger stooped over, shielding his head, I changed direction, covering the short distance to the man that held Lillian. He let go of her and pushed her toward me, retreating before I even got close.
Lillian didn’t come to me. She went straight to the table. Syringes, scalpels.
“Don’t move!” a thug shouted at me. “You little shit!”
I was already reaching out for Lillian. I grabbed her and hauled her toward me, making sure to keep the parasite away from her.
Positioning was key. The man with the gun adjusted his aim, pointing the gun at Lillian and I, and between our heads, looking a few feet beyond, he saw the Fishmonger.
Were these men equipped with good guns, or were they equipped with the cheap garbage that sent bullets flying off in random directions, consistently punching holes in the wall behind a dartboard twenty feet away?
You have to shoot at your boss to shoot at us.
But it was a trick that only worked in a limited way. We were surrounded, the room was full, and other people wouldn’t have the same problem getting a clear shot.
Their hesitation was for another reason.
The Fishmonger was still recovering from a beating delivered by a pubescent child. As I closed the distance once more, with Lillian in tow, he backed away.
His image was crumbling, I’d made him flinch, and that reflected badly in the eyes of criminals like these. A small part of them, I imagined, would want to see how this unfolded. Hell, given his earlier threats, they probably hated him.
Someone would smarten up before long. Realize that the Fishmonger would appreciate initiative here, and would recognize the hesitation to act. They would shoot.
Had to resolve this. I swung.
Had to find an opening. Get him, break him as surely as he threatened to break Lil.
The Fishmonger’s gloved hand slapped at the much-abused parasite. The parasite chose that same moment to squirm. It slipped from my grasp and struck a wall, hard.
It didn’t move much at all after it slid halfway down the wall and then flopped down to dusty ground.
The Fishmonger hit me, right in the ear that was already bleeding. I fell.
I still couldn’t win a fight. Even when it counted.
I could make openings, I could improvise, I could bend the rules and make people act in different ways.
But I couldn’t beat a grown man into submission with a wet noodle of a parasite.
The frustration gnawed at me. I felt very real desperation. I wanted to scream, but it was an angry scream.
Lillian held her syringes out as if she was holding a knife, threatening the Fishmonger with them, keeping her distance while trying not to move too far away from me.
“You remind me of my wife,” the Fishmonger said.
“Don’t,” Lillian said, her voice tight. “I don’t even want to think about you being married. You’re disgusting.”
“She was an Academy student too. She failed out, too. It ate away at her, trying to climb the ranks, working hard, only to fail because of sabotage and the incompetence of others,” he said. His tone of voice was a sneering one, and a part of me wondered if it was contempt for the incompetents who failed his wife, or if it was contempt for his wife, as if he didn’t believe the explanation.
He went on, “I offered her money, more than she would have had. She went against the rules of the Academy and sold her services to, well, me.”
“Modifying your foot soldiers, and then keeping them loyal to you by holding the maintenance hostage.”
“They’re not stupid men. They knew the devil’s deal they were making,” the Fishmonger said.
The way he said that, I knew he was calling out anyone who might’ve claimed they hadn’t known as stupid. Nobody would speak up and declare themselves a moron.
He was a manipulator.
“Where’s she now?” Lillian asked.
She was at least keeping him talking, even if she wasn’t being overly clever about it. Then again, she had a lot on her mind, what with me, the guns, the Fishmonger, needing to position herself right, and trying to track the conversation.
“She wanted out. But I’m like my pet over there. I don’t like to let go of my things. She has a room much like the one I’ve prepared for you, but more luxurious. When she’s good about doing her work, she has the freedom to do whatever she wishes, so long as it is done with escorts or behind locked doors.”
My ear was ringing from the punch. I tried to open the eye that had blood in it and felt a sharp sting.
One working eye, no depth perception. It didn’t help matters.
“I don’t suppose you have any young runaways with you? Girls with horns?” Lillian asked.
I was halfway caught between wanting to cringe at the fact that Lillian had handed over vital data about what we wanted, or being surprised she had the presence of mind to keep the mission in mind.
“Why?” the Fishmonger asked.
I blinked, started to climb to my feet, and someone stepped on my back forcing me to the ground. A solid one-hundred pounds pinned me to the ground.
“She’s a friend.”
The Fishmonger nodded slowly, taking it in.
A feint, trying to get her to let her guard down.
“Careful,” I said.
Lillian checked over her shoulder, then swiftly changed direction, backing away from a man that had been creeping closer.
I had a sense of how the Fishmonger thought, now. Who he was as a person. That helped.
I looked at the man, and I saw myself in a distorted shape, as if personality could be seen through a funhouse mirror.
Loathing bubbled inside me like hot bile.
“Thanks, Simon,” Lillian said. “Are you okay?”
“About as good as I look,” I said.
“Not very good then.”
I chuckled, then wished I hadn’t. My head pounded and my throat hurt with the effort.
“Pick the boy up. For the love of all that is holy, watch yourselves this time,” the Fishmonger said. “That’s twice now he’s tried something. Two occasions that will be remembered.”
He gave the evil eye to other thugs in the area.
“Leave him alone,” Lillian said. “You wanted me. He doesn’t factor in. Neither do the others.”
She’d spotted them by the entrance.
“Very loyal,” the Fishmonger said.
Lillian pursed her lips.
“Does your mind change if I tell you that he sold you?”
“Sold me,” Lillian said. She looked dazed. Her eyes fell on me, and I could see an expression on her face. Lost.
As if she couldn’t believe that, with all that had happened, the mess, the threats, the parasite, that this stupid, minor ruse of ours was still holding. That the Fishmonger believed me to be a secret traitor.
This is a moment to treasure, Lillian. Hold it in your heart, nurse it. It is something to look forward to, that moment when you realize you have some control and power in the most hopeless, darkest situations.
“You weren’t helping us!” I shouted. “We backed you! We gave you food, we gave you shelter, we hurt your enemies, and then when it mattered, you didn’t ever repay us! So yeah, I sold you, you stupid, ugly bitch!”
The Fishmonger hit me. I went from a standing position to a dangling one, hanging from my wrists as the thug held me.
He hit me again, then again, as if I were practice and nothing more. The blows were focused on my head and face. Striking where I was already cut and bleeding, with the first and third strike being aimed at my bleeding ear.
The final blow was to the midsection, making me double over. The thug’s grip on me kept me from keeling over.
Pain, I could handle. Only Lillian could handle Lillian, though.
My reminiscence of the earliest field work of the Lambs had been apt. There were parallels to be drawn between my sharing what I’d learned and my understanding of the world with Jamie and Gordon and what was happening here with Lillian.
Lillian marched in my direction. There was a wild look in her eye. Blithely, as if she couldn’t even see, she walked right into the reach of the man with the oil-slick skin. She didn’t even startle or glance at him. She continued to pull against his grip, trying to approach me.
The Fishmonger signaled. The man who held Lillian released her, and she stumbled as she took her next step toward me. She recovered, and the Fishmonger stood out of her way as she closed in.
A fistful of needles in hand, various colors of fluid within each, she stabbed me.
She didn’t depress the plunger. The needles weren’t being used for that. She pulled them out and slashed them against the less injured side of my face, raking me with needle points, one of them breaking off in the process.
She was a wild animal, entirely on autopilot, not thinking, only acting. She stabbed me again and again, the same four or five syringe points penetrating flesh over and over again. Shoulder, shoulder, side, abdomen, arm, chest.
The last hit was delivered with both hands. The needles went in as far as they could go. She pressed, and leaned forward in the doing. Her forehead rested against mine.
“I liked you,” she said, quiet but not so quiet the Fishmonger couldn’t hear. “I trusted you.”
“That’s your own fault,” I said, my voice soft.
“Enough,” the Fishmonger said. He grabbed the back of Lillian’s collar and pulled her away. She took one step back and sank to her knees.
I still had the needles buried in my shoulder.
Lillian’s hands formed gestures.
Poison. Bad. Drug.
She’d dug deep and found something, and she’d gone wholly against what her entire purpose in the Lambs was, on paper, to keep us healthy and safe. She’d torn into me, presumably avoiding vital areas, to arm me.
The Fishmonger stepped closer to me, reached out, and touched the syringes. He gripped them, or most of them, and bent them, until they started to break.
He left the wreckage in place, fluids dribbling down my front, only one or two syringes still intact.
“I think she’s realized there’s no way out. She’ll come with me, she’ll work for me.”
Still kneeling, eyes on the ground, Lillian nodded.
“You, I think we’ll have to devise a fitting end for you, little boy. You spoiled what was supposed to be a good night, and you killed my pet.”
“I don’t get paid?” I asked. Keeping up the role.
He hit me again.
“I get paid, I hope?” Ratface asked. He was off to one side, leaning against a stack of crates.
“You do,” the Fishmonger said. “Three bodies and an employee.”
Three bodies. Me, Gordon, and Jamie.
My eye went toward the front door. Mine wasn’t the only one.
Jamie still lay there, but Gordon didn’t. The man who’d been standing watch over the pair now lay face down on the warehouse floor.
It had been a hard lesson to learn. To trust my teammates.
“I thought you had them sedated!” the Fishmonger called out. His face was red and a vein stood out on the forehead.
“I jabbed ’em,” the altered thug with the spines all over his body spoke. He sounded spooked. “We were quick about it. Wasted no time, as soon as we got the signal.”
“And somewhere in there you stabbed him?”
“No sir,” Spines said. “The others will tell yeh, crazy little shit stabbed himself partway through the scuffle.”
Entirely without meaning to, we’d given him the distraction he needed.
Might as well make the most of it. Bleeding, beaten, stabbed, I managed a chuckle. Then I laughed. Wide eyes to sell the crazed aspect of the laugh. Eyes turned my way.
“You’re right, Fishmonger. There is no way out.”
Then, as if to echo my statement, likely because Gordon heard and was playing along -I’d have to buy him a treat later as thanks- the lights went out. We were plunged into almost absolute darkness, the only light being that which came from lamps outside the building and across the street.
Good boy, I thought, still grinning, but for my own benefit this time.